The Heavy Duty Of The Factory Man

U.S. manufacturing may seem like yesteryear's business, but Caterpillar's Mike Burke has prospered thanks to flexibility, self-reliance, and thrift

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Talk with most any smokestack employer, and he'll soon be grumbling about a shortage of qualified workers. Look at workplace trends, and it's no wonder why. In the past decade, one in every four manufacturing jobs has simply vanished. The remaining jobs no longer pay that well, either. Even with four hours a week of overtime pay, the average factory hand grosses less per hour today than the average hourly employee in the private sector. Who would choose this line of work?

But while manufacturing no longer provides a steady lift into the good life, a person can still do all right as a factory worker in 21st century America. It takes the right combination of skill, drive, personality, and luck; it takes someone like Hal M. Burke.

Burke—Mike to family and co-workers, after his middle name—joined Caterpillar Inc. (CAT ) on Oct. 25, 1982, when he was 24, as an entry-level assembler in the company's then brand-new diesel-engine plant in Lafayette, Ind. Today, he has worked his way up to the second-highest rank among hourly employees in the nonunion shop as a quality specialist. Where he once muscled blocks of cast iron, he now starts his shift by checking e-mail at his cubicle and then, as problems pop up on the line, speed-walking around his half of the 275-acre facility toting no more than a cell phone, a tape measure, a pen, and a Dell (DELL ) laptop.

Built like a lightweight wrestler and wearing safety glasses that look like Harry Potter's, Burke punches the clock each morning around 5:30, arriving an hour early to catch up on any unresolved issues from the night shift. But like the other five men in his unit, he is largely his own boss. He talks to his supervisor maybe once a week. His task is to make sure that every 3500-series engine is produced according to specifications. If assembly diagrams or instructions don't match actual parts or work flow, it's his responsibility to figure out why and diplomatically work across departments to make things right. "There are days when you can't walk fast enough," he says.

Burke, now 49, and his wife, Colleen, 47, a part-time aide for elementary school children with learning disabilities, lead a simple life. He drives a 2000 Jeep Cherokee. She drives a 2000 Mazda Miata. Lunch is microwaved Campbell's (CPB ) Chili. Dinner is two take-home chicken and pasta Caesar salads from Fazoli's. When their two grown sons were little, they drove 1,000 miles to Walt Disney (DIS ) World once. In 2002, Burke was dispatched to help set up diesel power generators in Brazil. He had never been on a commercial airplane before.

The couple is frugal by nature. "We're do-it-yourselfers," says Colleen. Adds Mike: "I've always hated the thought of paying somebody else to do things." So Mike pieces together PCs from scrounged parts. He also put a deck on the back of their home. Even so, they have to watch their money. When Burke first walked into Caterpillar, he was paid $12.85 an hour. After 25 years and a series of promotions, his wage rate has over the years doubled, to $25.67. Adjusted for inflation, however, their $80,000 combined income buys less than it did years before.

They're not complaining, however. They own a 16-year-old house with three bedrooms and 2 1/2 bathrooms on a half-acre on the edge of town, less than a 15-minute drive from the plant. They have an above-ground pool in the backyard and in the garage a bright yellow speedboat, which Colleen found on eBay (EBAY ) in June. Mike also has a pension and a 401(k) plan that earned more in the first half of 2007, thanks to his day-trading, than he'll make all year at work. Except for their mortgage, they have no debt. "I feel as secure as anyone," says Mike. "I'm happy where I'm at."

The Burkes pushed college on their sons, and Adam attended Purdue University in West Lafayette for two years. But he quit to go into active duty in the U.S. National Guard. Now 25, he reenlisted after a one-year tour in Afghanistan and is a recruiter in Indianapolis. Westin, 22, works the overnight shift at Caterpillar, having completed a two-year program in car engine repair in suburban Chicago. Burke makes a point of stopping by the line to see him at the start of his day.

Burke can see himself at Caterpillar until he's old enough to retire. He believes Westin could put in a lifetime at the plant, too, if he wants. But the tentacles of the global economy have reached Lafayette. While Caterpillar is spending more than $120 million to add another engine line at the plant, Burke is on a team that is helping the Peoria manufacturer transfer production of the factory's smallest and least profitable engine to India in 2008. He says he feels guilty about his role in shipping work overseas. But a job is a job.

By Michael Arndt

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